Every liberal has a dirty little secret, and mine is particularly scandalous: I am sick and tired of hearing about diversity. True, it was the University’s catchphrase in 2003 that helped preserve affirmative action in the Supreme Court. But even as the University basks in the glow of last month’s substantial victory — a new freshman class with a higher number of students of color — affirmative action, the mechanism that helped generate this greater diversity, remains as much in peril as ever.
The deceptively named Michigan Civil Rights Initiative battles on unabashed, its 2006 ballot proposal threatening to ban affirmative action in the very state where its constitutionality was first affirmed.
To make matter worse, Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement from the Supreme Court last month. O’Connor often sided with conservatives, but she understood the importance of equality in society and supported affirmative action. Her ill-timed exit from the nation’s highest bench leaves in its wake a vacancy that conservatives will most assuredly try to fill with someone hostile toward affirmative action and its principles.
For many students of color at the University, it is evident that diversity provides an inadequate argument for affirmative action. Everyone wants to know what I got on my SATs; sorority girls do not offer me flyers on the Diag inviting me to informational sessions about their houses; and my picture lies embedded in this column, my melanin threatening to pull the credibility out from underneath my words, betraying me as self-serving or, worse, uneducated. If racism is able to thrive on Michigan’s campus it surely exists in the nation’s high schools, far removed from Ann Arbor’s politically correct bubble. Affirmative action cannot be defended without acknowledging the racism that continues to produce such gross inequalities in our society.
Two years after the Grutter v. Bollinger decision, affirmative action remains as controversial and incendiary an issue as ever — not because Americans are bad people, intent on upholding a 300-year status quo of disenfranchisement and discrimination, but because those who understand the importance of affirmative action as a tool for overcoming historic (and current) inequities in our society have largely failed to convince Americans that the system is necessary and that it is just.
Arguing that affirmative action is important because it is vital to achieving diversity is not a winning strategy in itself. Diversity may have been (barely) enough to convince the Supreme Court of affirmative action’s significance, but it is a murky, difficult-to-define concept. For some diversity is about ethnicity, but for others it’s about different ideologies. Recently, for example, the right wing has demanded what they call “intellectual diversity” on college campuses, claiming that universities are rife with liberal-leaning professors and curricula.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s enjoyed great success because it focused on creating awareness of racism and weeding it out of our society. Today’s debate over affirmative action is unproductive and hurtful. It continually puts minorities on the defensive, allowing students of color to bear the burden of proving their worth to their classmates.
Poorer minority students are often seen as unqualified while wealthier students of color are seen as unfairly benefiting from affirmative action. White students, meanwhile, seem to have credentials beyond questioning; they can be secure in the belief that what they have accomplished is a direct result of how hard they have worked. Even those who accept that racism unfairly disadvantages minorities are blind to the fact that it unfairly advantages whites as well.
If we are truly committed to achieving real diversity on campus, we will need to look beyond the borders of diversity’s comfortable margins and face the ugly, stubborn roots of the issue.
Diversity is a nice concept. It is politically correct and looks good on snazzy brochures. But it cannot explain why we live on the segregated campus that we do. It does not account for the classmates who can ask me for notes and my high school grade-point average in the same breath. And it will not succeed in defending affirmative action from those who work ceaselessly to see its demise, jaded in the false belief that the defeat of affirmative action is a victory for civil rights.
Gay is a member of the Daily’s editorial board. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.